- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

TAMPA, Fla. | The dirt specifically dirty diapers is flying in Florida’s race for governor.

In one television commercial, newcomer Rick Scott suggests his GOP primary opponent, the state attorney general and a former congressman, should be thrown out like a baby’s dirty diaper. “Bill McCollum’s record stinks,” a female narrator says over an image of a squirming infant’s swaddled bottom.

In response, Mr. McCollum criticizes Mr. Scott for the record settlement his former hospital company paid to settle Medicare fraud charges. Mr. McCollum claims his opponent was “ripping off taxpayers.” He looks into the camera in his ad and addresses Mr. Scott as if he were in the room: “You put profit over principle, and that’s wrong.”

Floridians can’t watch television for very long this summer without seeing one candidate tear down the other. “Tea party” favorite Mr. Scott has spent more than $20 million of his own fortune so far on campaign advertising. Mr. McCollum and his allies, determined not to let the criticism go unanswered, are striking back.

The use of attack ads in the Florida contest as well as races in Arizona, Nevada and a handful of other states raises questions candidates and campaigns have struggled to answer for decades: Are negative commercials effective in defining an opponent or do they cost the sponsor of the ad many votes in the long run?

As a rule, political operatives believe negative ads work. But they are aware of the pitfalls and often use humor or a soothing voiceover to take the edge off a commercial’s tone.

“They’re making each other look really bad,” said Terry Bishop, a 58-year-old retired oil field worker and registered Republican who lives in Gulf Breeze. “They’re not defining themselves, they’re defining each other, and you don’t know what to believe.”

Across the country, establishment and maverick candidates are using ads to attack each other as sinister, foolish, incompetent, amoral or almost criminal.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, facing a Republican primary challenge from the right, has hit J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman trying to tap into anti-Washington sentiment, with a commercial labeling him a “huckster.” It’s based on Mr. Hayworth’s appearance in an infomercial pitching free government money on behalf of a company accused of swindling customers out of thousands of dollars. Mr. Hayworth has run an ad where Arizonans on the street go blank when asked to name something Mr. McCain has done to benefit their state.

In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate and tea party favorite Sharron Angle has been the target of a barrage of attack ads, first from a failed primary rival and now from Democrats trying to keep Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in office. One made fun of Mrs. Angle’s support of a Church of Scientology program that supposedly uses massage and sauna therapy to reduce inmate violence behind bars. The ad depicts a burly con getting a massage before kissing the tattoo on his arm a caricature of Mrs. Angle’s face and the words, “Thanks Sharron.” Mrs. Angle is running her own critical ad accusing Mr. Reid of running negative ads.

Mr. Reid has a slight edge over Mrs. Angle in recent polls.

In Vermont, Republican Len Britton, challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, is running a commercial depicting a Publishers Clearinghouse-style delivery to a mom and her children. But instead of a big check, it’s an invoice for $168,000 the family’s share of the national debt. Mr. Britton comes on and says, “Pat Leahy and his friends in Washington have run up quite a tab, creating deficits we may never be able to repay.”

David D. Perlmutter, director of the journalism school at the University of Iowa and an expert on political communication, sums it up: “Negative is the new normal.”

The effectiveness of the ads depends on the attack, Mr. Perlmutter said. A claim that is plausible and at least based in truth is more likely to get traction. And at a time when many voters are angry at the government, outsiders are logically going hard after the records of incumbents and established politicians.

In Florida, Mr. Scott entered the race in April after Mr. McCollum had already been anointed by the state GOP establishment to succeed Gov. Charlie Crist. Mr. Scott’s immediate and frequent presence on TV commercials and anti-establishment message helped him surge ahead in the polls in the spring.

Mr. Scott made a fortune building the massive Columbia/HCA hospital chain in the 1990s only to be forced out by his board amid a Medicaid/Medicare fraud investigation that saw the company pay a record $1.7 billion settlement after he was gone. He has said repeatedly that he didn’t know about any wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime. Mr. McCollum says the 57-year-old Mr. Scott is either dishonest or a terrible CEO who didn’t see fraud going on under his nose.

Mr. Scott, who moved to Florida seven years ago from Connecticut, has effectively hung the career politician label on the 66-year-old Mr. McCollum, a state GOP stalwart who has twice run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.

His ads have hit Mr. McCollum for his chummy relationship with a former state Republican Party chief who was charged in a fraud scandal, and has made effective use of a McCollum sound bite saying he didn’t support Arizona’s tough new immigration law. Mr. McCollum said he now supports an amended version of the law.

Joel Parlin, a 49-year-old Republican who lives near Tampa, said he has watched the tone of the ads get increasingly nastier, but they haven’t put him off supporting Mr. Scott.

“According to the ads, they’re making [Mr. Scott] out to be a crook, and he may be,” Mr. Parlin said. “But I’m very anti-establishment as far as the way the government continues its same-old, same-old. If they’re an establishment politician, I won’t vote for them.”